Holmes for the Bewildered

Being back to work full-time, now that the new teaching term has started, I find myself in a position to do quick lunchtime blog post while I eat my sandwich. I was going to blog about this topic last week, but thought I’d wait a week in case anything happened to change my negative opinion on this issue. I’m aware that I’m in a small minority and didn’t want to expose myself to public disapproval without due care and attention. Well, last night my opinion certainly changed, only it got even more negative. So now I’m going to take a deep breath, gird my loins, and state for the record my honestly-held opinion that the new BBC TV Series Sherlock is complete and utter tripe.

It’s not that I object to the idea of  placing Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great stories in a contemporary setting. Not at all. Sherlock Holmes is one of the most memorable creations in all of fiction and the plots – at least most of them – are so well constructed that the stories should be translatable into a contemporary setting quite easily. There have been so many “traditional” versions of  Sherlock Holmes that I welcome the attempt to do something different with the character.

Neither is it that I object to Sherlock Holmes being played for laughs. The character does indeed possess a great deal of comic potential, which  a number of other interpretations have exploited with a greater or lesser degree of success.

What has happened in this series, however, is that the original plots have been butchered to the point where they make no sense at all. Instead we just have a series of thinly related comedy sketches, with only feeble attempts to link them to a viable mystery story, like a duff combination of the worst bits of Jonathan Creek and The Fast Show.

Last night’s puerile Hound of the Baskervilles was especially dire in this respect. The original story – a full-length novel rather than a short story – is a genuinely intriguing mystery-thriller, laced with undertones of the supernatural, and full of memorable characters, including of course the fearsome Hound itself.

For reasons best known to themselves Forced to squeeze it into one hour, the producers of last night’s version of this classic tale abandoned most of the original plot and introduced a load of silly nonsense about werewolves and hallucinogenic fog and the CIA. The Holmes-Watson double-act was quite amusing – and some of the dialogue very witty – but the plot was so thin it just reminded me of Abbott and Costello meet the Wolfman and other such films I watched when I was a kid. I thought the first episode –  A Scandal in Belgravia – was bad enough, but last night’s episode was truly excruciating. I won’t be watching any more.

It’s a mystery to me why so many people seem to think this tosh is so good, but then I’m used to being in a minority of one. Perhaps if you watch a lot of TV your expectations are lowered so much by the constant stream of drivel that anything that even tries to be original – which Sherlock admittedly does – sends you into raptures?

No, dear critics, I don’t think Sherlock is “great TV” at all. In fact I think it’s dreadful.

There. I’ve said it.

39 Responses to “Holmes for the Bewildered”

  1. just to correct a factual inaccuracy; last night’s Sherlock was 90minutes, not an hour.

  2. I agree with most of your points, except for one little thing. Its 90 minutes of tripe not an hour 😉

    • telescoper Says:

      OK, OK. My mistake. I’ve edited the text. However, the fact it was 90 minutes means there’s even less excuse for destroying the plot.

  3. peter lindsay Says:

    I don’t understand – are you saying you didn’t think much of it – or what ?

  4. Mrs Trellis Says:

    I quite like “Sherlock”.

    At least Brian Cox isn’t in it.

  5. I watched it for the first time last night and couldn’t agree more. It reminded me of the kids’ show MI High, and that’s not a good thing

  6. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    Am I allowed to muddy the waters by saying that I enjoyed last week’s “A Scandal in Belgravia” very much, but thought that last night’s “The Hounds of Baskerville” was distinctly sub-par?

    Indeed, the slight respelling of the titles perhaps belies the bigger issue, namely that Moffat and Gatiss have chosen to adapt (rather liberally) original Conan Doyle stories rather than write new stories for their updated Holmes and Watson.

    As a result, the door is opened for unfavourable comparisons with the books / short stories, rather than using the characters as a jumping off platform for new, contemporary tales. Given some people’s very fervent attachment to the originals (and why not indeed?), this does seem like a dubious approach.

    OK, by basing the TV series on established canon, it does allow the devoted to play “spot the allusion”, of which I understand there are plenty, but one does wonder whether pandering to the aficionados might not be a double-edged sword, as your post appears to suggest, Peter.

    Anyway, IMHO, both Moffat and Gatiss have shown that they’re very capable writers of completely original stories in other contexts: I’d like to see them do that for Sherlock, along with continuing to keep the zingers in the dialogue (which even Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells seems to agree are quite amusing :-)).

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, the Trades Descriptions Act doesn’t really apply to TV programmes, but I think it would have been better either to have written completely new stories or to have given the series another name entirely. It doesn’t really have much to do with Sherlock Holmes, actually, apart from the cute in-jokes.

      Critics responses to this series have generally been overwhelmingly positive whereas Great Expectations, which I actually liked a lot, provoked a very negative reaction precisely because it wasn’t sufficiently faithful to the original storyline.

  7. What do you think of the new films with Jude Law?

  8. I enjoyed the first season quite a bit (season 2 hasn’t reached the US yet), although I actually agree on the whole with your criticism.

    Mark McCaughrean is right, I think, that it was a mistake to give the episodes titles that suggest they’re based on the original stories. In fact, the plots are almost entirely unrelated to the originals (at least in the first season), and the comparison isn’t something the creators of the TV series should want to encourage.

    But even viewed on their own terms, not in comparison with Conan Doyle, the plots are weak. For some reason, that doesn’t bother me as much as it does you. I find myself capable of enjoying the program on its own terms, as a generally amusing homage to the original stories. I don’t think it’s an important cultural advance that will be remembered decades from now, but I find it to be good fun.

    Despite being set in Victorian England, the Robert Downey Jr. movie (at least the first one — haven’t seen the second) has infinitely less to do with the Conan Doyle canon. I watched it with the attitude that these characters just coincidentally have the same names as Holmes and Watson. With that mindset, I found it mildly entertaining but forgettable.

  9. I enjoy it. But that’s the thing about taste, it varies.

    A quibble, as far as I can recall there was nothing much about werewolves in the show, certainly nothing to the scale of a “load of silly nonsense”. Which by the way is a curious comment given that the original played with the idea of a supernatural hound.

    • telescoper Says:

      Perhaps I was confused by the fact that they cast a werewolf as young Mr Basketcase or whatever his name was.

  10. I could not agree more, and it is programmes like Sherlock and the hype surrounding them that made me get rid of my television a few years ago. Why do these shows always have to be heralded by the usual suspects telling us how it is ‘the best thing on television’, the dialogue witty and entertaining, but on inspection reveals a few second-hand ideas stretched to breaking point all put together by some of the smuggest men involved in entertainment today.

    I realise that that the BBC has to try and flog this stuff abroad but the Olympic levels of hype that accompany it are something to behold. I can think of only one other show that creates such praise and that is Doctor Who, and we all know the quality of that venture!

    To quote Mr Eccleston on this first day of shooting ‘who writes this shit?’

    • Mark McCaughrean Says:

      Quite independent of the other issues, I would at least strongly defend the opinion that there are some jolly witty moments in the Moffat/Gatiss Sherlock scripts.

      And for what it’s worth, a average of 9.4 score from >1,500 people for “A Scandal in Belgravia” on imdb would suggest that it’s not just “the usual suspects” telling us that it’s good telly.

      And as for the werewolf business, yes Peter, I think you’re confusing this with Mr Tovey’s role in Being Human 😉 There was nothing about werewolves in the Baskerville episode, just big genetically mutated dogs, or the idea thereof.

      • telescoper Says:

        The score merely provides further irrefutable proof of the decline of civilisation.

      • Mark McCaughrean Says:

        Ah, Peter my dear fellow, you really are turning into a parody here … as Kav pointed out earlier in the thread, just because someone doesn’t share your tastes, that doesn’t necessarily mean that either of you are wrong.

        Of course, you are correct about the decline of modern civilisation, but I’d lay much more of the blame for that on Simon Cowell than on Stephen Moffat.

        For what it’s worth, the well-known Grumpy Old Men TV series has a fairly respectable 7.8 score on imdb; more up your street, perhaps 😉

      • telescoper Says:

        That remark was intended to be a self-parody…

  11. I haven’t seen it. But seriously, if it is so bad (and it sounds dreadful) why did you waste 90 minutes of your life watching it?

    • telescoper Says:

      If I hadn’t watched it I wouldn’t have had anything to blog about!

      • Peter, your dogged curmudgeonliness (is that a word?) is very entertaining and – as I suspect you are already aware – one of the main attractions of this blog. I very much enjoyed Sherlock, and I have also enjoyed reading your complaints about it!

      • telescoper Says:

        I’m not pretending. I really am like this.

  12. Monica Grady Says:

    Sheer escapism, a bit of humour and nods to a venerable detective, all led by a young man who is very easy on the eye – what’s not to like…..

    • telescoper Says:

      Mr Cumberbatch is a fine actor, but he’s an odd-looking fellow in my opinion….

      • Mark McCaughrean Says:

        On that, we are completely agreed, Peter. Then again, this is definitely an area where one person’s tastes may differ strongly from another’s (thank goodness).

        Then again, perhaps Monica was referring to Martin Freeman, since surely in this New Sherlock, we’re going to discover that Dr Watson is ultimately running Holmes … And perhaps Monica likes men with hairy feet, as Freeman will be showing aplenty soon enough.

  13. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: may I recommend that you don’t see the Downey/Law film? I saw that and also the latter half of the TV programme. The TV version left me pleased to have seen a Holmes adaptation that wasn’t a camp piss-take from beginning to end. The fear of the Baskerville beast was genuinely evoked, and I thought the translation to a modern setting was interestingly done. Personally, I’d be happier with a more faithful recreation of the original, but if you think this is bad, wait till you see what Hollywood’s done to it (or, rather, wait forever).

    Actually, I take that back a bit: the Downey/Law film was quite entertaining (not least Moriarty as a Cambridge astronomy don), but it just had nothing to do with the virtues of Conan Doyle.

    Finally, let me mention that you can visit the actual House of the Baskervilles: it’s near Hay-on-Wye. My Daughter went to a residential sports camp there, and came back unchewed.

    • telescoper Says:

      Call me old-fashioned but the very authentic version of Hound of the Baskervilles starring Jeremy Brett made for Granada TV is definitely my favourite version of the Conan-Doyle story. ..

      The scene from about 5.14 onwards wherein Holmes analyses the anonymous message to Sir Henry Baskerville features Jeremy Brett at his finest as the definitive Sherlock Holmes, although you will have to click onto Youtube to watch it…

      • Dave Carter Says:

        Anyone else here vote for Peter Cushing? Or are you all too young.

      • Definitive? I think Brett’s performance in the series could have benefitted from much tighter direction and he fundamentally misunderstood the character. That clip highlights many of his failings with the role, a little too arch and a desire to squeeze in a lot of very funny looks, for instance how absurd is that funny grimace/smile he does!

        As a much younger man I quite enjoyed the adaptations, but after a gap of many years and a rereading of the stories I now realise he started off on the wrong foot, and as the series went on he became unwatchable. At the end he played an exaggerated version of himself playing Holmes. I don’t blame him as the producer should have pulled him to one side and had a word with him.

        He wasn’t helped by how some of the stories were changed and told in the series, for instance the changes to ‘The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual’ and ‘The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire’ play to Brett’s weaknesses in the role rather than his strengths.

        There is little sign of his development in the character apart from a tendency for him to get more manic and his acting a little hammy. Though development is a problem for anyone in the role due to the difference in when the stories were published and the order they actually occurred.

        On the subject of different versions of Holmes I recently enjoyed watching Tom Baker’s performance in the 1982 adaptation of ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’. Bunkum of course, Dartmoor relocated to E-space.

        (Need to think more about Cushing’s performance)

      • telescoper Says:

        You’re entitled to your opinion, of course, but I can’t agree that Brett “fundamentally misunderstood” the role! I think he got closer to the character in the books and stories than any other performer I’ve seen, and still managed to add new dimensions. The combination of camp theatricality and inner melancholy he brings – which have been mentioned on this blog before – are not to everyone’s taste, but I think his performances were exceptionally fine. And the smile not absurd at all.

  14. Mr Physicist Says:

    I agree Sherlock is dreadful. Watched part of the first episode then switched off. Conan-Doyle must be turning in his grave.

  15. @cosmicpinot Says:

    Ouch! Peter you clearly have higher standards than I for television. Just watched and rather
    Enjoyed it – what on television is worth watching?

    • telescoper Says:

      “What on television is worth watching?”

      Not much, in my opinion…

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      The answer to that question used to be “the goldfish bowl” but with flatscreens even that’s no longer possible.

    • telescoper Says:

      It was cold on Saturday night so I got a log fire going. It was much more interesting to watch than the TV, at least after a couple of glasses of port.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      You can buy a DVD with various tracks, that makes your TV look like a fireplace (flames track) or a fishtank (fish track – tropical or oceanic) or other tracks…

    • telescoper Says:

      I could just set my set on fire…or fill it with water and fish.

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